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Pat MurphyThere is no abortion law in Canada. Canadians uneasy about that can look across the Atlantic for an alternative way of doing things. On May 25, the Republic of Ireland goes to the polls in an abortion-related constitutional referendum.

Abortion was outlawed in Ireland by the Offences Against the Person Act passed by the United Kingdom parliament in 1861. When what is now the Republic of Ireland emerged as the Irish Free State in 1922, this legislation was assumed into the law of the new entity.

It was a no-brainer. Overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and deeply conservative socially, the new state took the view that abortion was morally equivalent to murder. There were no shades of grey.

And as the western world’s view of abortion began to change in the second half of the 20th century, an additional safeguard was proposed. The constitution would be amended to grant parity of recognition to the unborn child. To quote: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

Known as the Eighth Amendment, this was put to a referendum in 1983 and passed overwhelmingly. At 66.9 percent to 33.1 percent, it wasn’t close.

Thirty-five years later, the question is before the electorate again. Voters will be asked whether they wish to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

If repeal carries, the government is committed to introduce legislation that both permits and regulates abortion. A broad outline of intent has been published.

Effectively, abortion would be available on request for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. This is similar to the situation in countries like Germany, Austria, Belgium and Denmark, but considerably tighter than the 22 weeks permitted in the Netherlands.

After 12 weeks, the rules would be more stringent, at least theoretically.

Termination would be permitted in the event of “a risk to the life of, or of serious harm to the health of, the pregnant woman” provided “the fetus has not reached viability, and it is appropriate to carry out the termination of pregnancy in order to avert that risk.” Critically, the operative definition of “health” includes both physical and mental health.

In addition, termination would be permitted if the fetus had a condition that was likely to lead to death either before or shortly after birth.

Abortion is a difficult subject that attracts diametrically opposed opinions.

At one pole are those who believe there’s a human being present from the moment of conception and that full legal protection is instantly required. I understand the argument but consider it to be valid in only a metaphysical sense.

At the other pole are those who believe the fetus only becomes a human being when it exits the birth canal. That, I think, is grotesque.

If you probe the granular views of most people, I suspect you’ll find they’re somewhere between the two extremes. The challenge is to determine at what point the unborn child merits the full protection of the law.

Voters in Ireland at either pole will have no difficulty in making a referendum decision.

Those who believe a human being is present from the moment of conception will vote against repeal of the Eighth Amendment. To paraphrase Martin Luther, they can do no other.

Those at the opposite pole will vote for repeal, not as an ultimate end but as a stepping stone.

It gets tougher for those at neither pole.

For instance, some will think that 12 weeks is too long a grace period for what’s effectively abortion-on-demand. While a fetus isn’t viable at that point, it’s still a lot more than a clump of cells.

Others will see 12 weeks as a reasonable compromise but will be concerned about a slippery slope, worrying that the period will subsequently get extended or the post-12-weeks restrictions won’t be rigorously applied.

And then there’ll be those who’d prefer to avoid addressing the question at all.

Still, those of us who believe that mature democracies should be capable of directly tackling such fundamental issues will be tempted to engage in a little Irish-envy this month.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.

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